It is a beautiful sight. We are looking down to an emerald valley, where streams of silvery water flow into a succession of turquoise, azure and blue lakes. Intrigued, we walk down into a spellbinding place of glistening water and shimmering leaves.
We follow the paths, boardwalks and bridges - always with water in sight - down through the beech forest. Bubbling springs and streams from the Upper Lakes spread through the trees. The flow fans out through the rocks, gathering momentum, eventually tumbling in veiled waterfalls to the pools and lakes below.
Eddying and swirling along a network of connecting tributaries, the water has carved itself a gorge as it descends 135m over a distance of 8km through 16 crystal clear lakes. The clarity is a result of the water's natural filtration through the soft, spongy soil of the forest ecosystem at the head of the lakes. The sun catches mineral particles hanging in the clear water, giving each lake a distinctive colour.
Fish break the surface of the lakes or swim in the shallow streams. Spray rises from pools beneath the falls and, caught by the summer breeze, cools us as we watch each mesmerising cascade. The leisurely graded 8km downhill walk takes us four hours with stops. Shorter walks are possible because the shuttle bus picks up and drops off at various points along the way.
Around lunchtime, we're halfway down. The forest has cleared to an open rest area and picnic site at the larger Lake Kozjac.
A parks office, a few small souvenir shops and a smoking barbecue surround a group of picnic tables. We line up for a dripping, hot roast beef sandwich lunch and enjoy the lake views.
A ghostly silent electric boat ferries us to the end of the lake and from there we resume our walk. Nature has woven an intricate silver lacework between the Lower Lakes. Countless rivulets and streams thread their way around moss-clad rocks, down through the lush green cover to the pools below - each one separated by a natural dam and pathway. The water follows its inevitable course, eventually cascading over Veliki Slap (the Big Waterfall), 76m to the Korana River below.
This area of beauty is only a small fraction of the total Plitvice Lakes National Park, which is as huge as it is magnificent. The national park covers an area of 300sq km, and although we don't see wildlife, the deep woods are home to deer, wolves, wild boar, rare birds and even bears. Established in 1949 and named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, the park is a four-hour drive from Split on the Adriatic Coast, halfway between Split and the Croatian capital city, Zagreb.
The previous day, we had left the marble brilliance of Split and driven north along the sun-drenched Adriatic Coast to the beautifully preserved walled island city of Trigor. Founded by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC, it is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a walk back in time as we cross the ancient stone bridge through the city gate into the old town. Cobbled streets and plazas parade a veritable museum of gleaming sandstone and granite buildings. Each reflects the occupying cultures of Rome, Hungary, Venice, France and Austria spanning the centuries.
Back outside the gate, we explore the Green market and acquire the makings of a picnic lunch. My wife is given a particularly large and succulent tomato by a smiling vendor lady who refuses payment. Continuing our drive up the Adriatic Coast, we find shade in a high olive grove and make our lunch of Trigor Dalmatian smoked ham, goat cheese and tomato on crusty Croatian bread, while overlooking the pretty peninsula fishing village of Primosten.
We then leave the coast, turning inland and west up into the cool green forested hills surrounding the Plitvice Lakes region to our hotel and a welcome dinner of Plitvice Lake trout and peach cream dessert.
The Plitvice region has an interesting and sometimes sinister recent past, as Croatia's War of Independence from Yugoslavia and Serbia started here in 1991. Our hotel and others in the area were once used as barracks by the invading Serbian Army. The local population of 7000 fled to the coast and only came back to thrive after Operation Storm, when Croatian Armed forces liberated the region from the Serb Army with NATO and US assistance in 1995.
Early the next morning, the Plitvice Lakes National Parks shuttle bus collects us at the hotel and drives up through the forest to one of the Upper Lakes to the start of that memorable day - and a camera full of memories.
Later, we experience a traditional Lika region dinner at the nearby Licka Kuca. The restaurant is built around a central shallow fire pit under a covered roof cowl. Large hunks of lamb, beef and veal are cooked on metal sheets under iron covers, or bells, and hot ashes are heaped over the bells. This rustic place has the mingled mouth-watering aromas of wood smoke and roasting meat. Hungry after our walk, we carry our loaded plates and mugs of beer to a long table and join other guests.Intrigued, we walk down into a spell-binding place of glistening water . . .
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